JACKSON — Mississippi State Auditor Stacey Pickering on Thursday accused the Mississippi Department of Education of breaking state laws governing contracts and said he’s continuing to investigate problems.
The department, though, denied breaking any laws, saying it would work with Pickering.
“We do not agree that we’ve done anything improper or wrong,” department Chief Operating Officer Felicia Gavin told reporters. “We have not violated any laws to our knowledge.”
Pickering released reports on a series of consulting contracts, as well as on problems with after-school grants that forced the department to repay $11.7 million in federal funds. The Republican said he might demand repayment from either vendors or the appointed members of the state Board of Education, depending on future findings. He wouldn’t say whether he intends to refer anyone for criminal prosecution.
“They had blatant disregard at the Department of Education for procurement regulations,” Pickering told reporters, accusing the department put roadblocks in the way of his investigation and “has not always been forthcoming.” The department says it has provided data for at least five different reports by Pickering’s office since June 2016.
The elected auditor said the department broke state law when it set up an alternative method of selecting contractors from a pre-qualified pool, and may have broken state law by splitting contracts to evade what was then a $100,000 threshold to take bids.
Pickering said he found no records from a state contracting board approving the pool method from 2010 to 2015, but Gavin said the department had received approval in 2009 and had provided documentary proof to Pickering’s office.
The auditor also questioned a series of contracts with four sets of individuals and companies from 2014 to 2016 that a report from a legislative watchdog agency focused on earlier this week. State agencies at the time were supposed to take bids for service contracts worth more than $100,000, and take quotes from multiple vendors for contracts worth more than $50,000. In some instances, amounts of individual contracts were just under $100,000 or just under $50,000, while total work exceeded those thresholds. The department spent more than $1 million with the contractors.
Gavin said the contracts were allowable because they were for different kinds of work. But Pickering disagreed, saying he felt contracts associated with the department’s current Chief Information Officer John Q. Porter and with a man named Elton Stokes appear to be “very much the same work.”
Splitting contracts to evade bid laws is a crime under Mississippi state law.
Gavin said the department stopped using the pool method earlier this year after the contracting board recommended a change. Now, purchasing officials take two quotes for any contract between $5,000 and $50,000 and three quotes for any contract between $50,000 and $75,000. Above that level, contracts must now be bid, after lawmakers lowered the threshold from $100,000
Pickering also criticized 2015 contracts with Joseph Kyles. The department can produce a contract or purchase orders for the computer equipment and training it bought from Kyles, also the head of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition in Memphis, Tennessee. Pickering said he was “not satisfied” that Kyles was a legitimate vendor.
Finally, Pickering cited problems in the department’s accounting procedures, saying they led to a department official improperly diverted $11.5 million from federal anti-poverty grants into the separate federal after-school grant program after the state awarded more grants than it had money for. The department had to slash after-school grants while it repaid the money. The department fired three employees and reorganized its accounting department. Gavin said another problem Pickering criticized, an incomplete list of department bank accounts, has already been fixed.
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